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Concordia spurs innovation in Africa

Students, research and partnerships play larger role in infrastructure, education, economic progress
June 18, 2019
By Damon van der Linde

“By having Kenyan teachers as ambassadors, you can’t imagine how it has generated excitement.”

By 2030, the United Nations has projected that one in five people in the world will be from an African country. The continent is home to some of the world’s fastest-growing economies where there are massive opportunities to build infrastructure, alleviate poverty, develop technology and increase and improve education.

As an institution that produces innovative solutions that contribute to society, Concordia is in an ideal position to make an impact in Africa and around the world.

In addition to welcoming 681 international students from 36 countries across the continent in the 2017/18 academic year, the university is building transformative relationships with African communities and institutions toward the development of a sustainable and equitable world.

Concordia works with international organizations on funding opportunities, research and mobility experiences in different African countries. These initiatives seek to celebrate an incredibly diverse continent by challenging tired narratives of famine, conflict and poverty. Although Concordia uses its resources to support solutions in different African countries, it is doing this in a way that is collaborative and reciprocal, with an approach of humility and understanding.

In academics, the university has an African Studies Working Group that brings together faculty and graduate students from different disciplines to workshop their proposals, papers and other research that addresses the intertwining of social, economic, and political processes in the ongoing transformation of the African continent.

Since the 1980s, the African Student Association of Concordia has supported and represented international students as well as others of African descent. It serves as a conduit for members of the diaspora to engage with student life through advocacy and social events, as well as hosting events in Montreal that feature speakers from different African countries.

These initiatives are part of Concordia’s growth as an institution with a global impact, not only through its alumni and research, but through the positive development of an increasingly interconnected world.

ABRACADABRA: Helping a continent with literacy

Better education not only improves the lives of students and their families, it helps build a more productive society with benefits that ripple beyond borders and reach future generations. Yet around the globe, there are 250 million girls and boys who cannot decipher a single sentence, even though many have spent years in school.

Concordia’s Centre for the Study of Learning and Performance (CSLP) aims to build tools to advance the teaching and learning process.

The CSLP team has developed the Learning ToolKit (LTK+), a suite of evidence-based software. These programs support the development of literacy, numeracy, inquiry and other competencies within an environment that encourages student-directed learning and student ownership.

Funded by Concordia, the Aga Khan Academies and other partners, the CSLP began research in Mombasa, Kenya in 2012, focusing on the impact of its ABRACADABRA early literacy software and library of digital books, called READS (ABRACADABRA has been piloted around the world by educators).

We’re not only providing a university experience for Concordians, but actually building a collaborative and peer-to-peer learning model.

Over the years, results have consistently shown improvements in student learning, with girls achieving at the same rates as boys. Across the board these youngsters not only demonstrated a marked and consistent improvement in literacy and math, but also in science and social studies.

“We’ve learned over time that it doesn’t matter where the children are, that even in remote regions they can compete with the best students in Kenya if they are just given the right opportunity,” says Phil Abrami, a professor of education in the Faculty of Arts and Science, and founder of the CSLP.

“It’s not about the kids and their ability. It’s about providing them with the educational support to unleash their unlimited capacity for learning. It’s not the kids who do poorly; it’s the education systems that do poorly.”

Abrami emphasises that although ABRACADABRA and the rest of the Learning ToolKit is software, the focus is on education, not technology. “Too often people get caught up in the ‘whiz-bang’ nature of the technology and forget that technology has to be in service of learning, not the other way around,” he says.

What this means in practice, Abrami says, is that the continuing success of ABRACADABRA relies on buyin from the government, NGOs and especially educators.

“By having Kenyan teachers as ambassadors, you can’t imagine the impact it has had on generating excitement, positive energy and motivation among all of those other teachers that were so hard to reach in previous years. Now the implementation has increased substantially,” says Anne Wade, who has acted as project manager on a variety of CSLP research and development projects, including the Learning ToolKit.

With support from the Kenyan government, LTK+ is being implemented in both rural and urban communities, while the CSLP is looking to expand the initiative to other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and beyond.

“We definitely want to grow in a sustainable way. We have helped thousands and thousands of students and teachers so far, but it’s really just a drop in the bucket,” Abrami says. “There are millions of children in Kenya, so there’s a big gap between where we are now and where we could be.”

Through CEED Concordia, students have an impact

In 2006 Concordia undergraduates Awel Uwihanganye, BA 08, and Peter Schiefke, BA 07 brought an ambitious idea to their peers: through a student fee levy they would fund a volunteer organization that allows Concordians to employ their skills outside the classroom in Uwihanganye’s home country of Uganda.

Awel Uwihanganye Awel Uwihanganye, BA 08

“As an African student, I was very interested in exposing students at Concordia to Africa because I wanted opportunities for future leaders to be exposed to one of the most important parts of the world, which is mostly very misunderstood,” said Uwihanganye.

“We didn’t want to just replicate some of the other models out there where students can go abroad, but it really can be quite expensive.”

Named the Concordia Volunteer Abroad Program (CVAP), it connected passionate young people to organizations in Gulu, a city of about 150,000 people in northern Uganda. There, Concordia students would work on entrepreneurship, agriculture and sustainable food production, childcare and child healthcare, HIV/AIDS and other related projects.

The organization gained traction. In 2011, the first CVAP volunteers stayed at the newly built facility in Gulu, constructed with design support from Concordia graduate students to be a demonstration centre for sustainable technologies. In 2014, CVAP was renamed CEED – Community, Empowerment, Education, Development – to reflect the experiential learning aspect of the organization above volunteering.

“We consciously wanted to go against that ‘volunteer abroad’ model. Not because there isn’t a place for it, but we just felt like other people are doing it better,” says Thomas Prince, BA 11, MA 15, executive director at CEED Concordia.

CEED Concordia and CEED Uganda emerged as two partner organizations, each guided by its own board of directors, staff and community of stakeholders. With a focus on empowering youth, CEED developed core in-house projects on entrepreneurship, communications and environmental sustainability.

Each year, CEED brings together undergraduate and graduate students from Concordia and a variety of different universities in Gulu. These cross-cultural internships provide a unique opportunity for hands-on learning and engaging critical issues affecting youth in northern Uganda and beyond. It is also an opportunity to build job skills students can carry forward in their careers.

The internships emphasize social, community and personal development through experiential learning and cultural and skills exchanges. At Concordia, the organization benefits students through the internships, as well as public events, academic courses, research opportunities, and employment opportunities.

Josie Fomé, BA 17, Gr.Dip 18, first joined CEED as an intern in the summer of 2018 as part of the Youth Advocacy & Communications project where with her team she helped produce a monthly radio talk show that highlighted young achievers in the community.

“It was really challenging and it helped me grow in multiple ways by learning how to listen and understand, not just respond. I learned how to take a step back because this isn’t my space and this isn’t my culture,” says Fomé.

Fomé returned to CEED as the intern coordinator where she is responsible for the recruitment, training and support of interns throughout the summer program to ensure that they have a challenging and fulfilling learning experience.

“Because half the interns are Canadian and half are Ugandan, you have locals who are going through this with you. They are literally your peers because they are university students as well,” she says.

To date more than 250 Concordia students and 150 Ugandans have participated, with CEED making sustainable contributions beyond the three-month internships by supporting the Ugandan office in its year-round activities.

“We’re not only providing a university experience for Concordians, but actually building a collaborative and peer-topeer learning model where students can apply their skills from the classroom and further their passions,” says Prince.

Prince says as an institution, Concordia has been extremely supportive of CEED, not only from the student-fee levy but through leadership at the Concordia Student Union as well as champions in faculty and the administration.

“The impacts have been immense,” says Uwihanganye. “Students who started with CEED and CVAP are now working in international development or for governments. I think as a result we’ve also seen an increase in understanding about Africa through the different initiatives that take place on campus.”

Concordia Africa initiative builds transformative relationships

More than half of the 1.2 billion people in Africa are under the age of 21, while two-thirds are younger than 30. Meanwhile, the continent has a staggeringly high rate of unemployment – especially among young people.

Paradoxically, the continent is home to eight out of 10 of the fastest-growing economies, though not everyone has equal access to new-found wealth in these emerging markets.

William Cheaib, associate vice-president international, in the Office of the Vice-President, Research & Graduate Studies, sees this great challenge as an opportunity. He noticed that almost everyone had access to a smart phone, and that this technology could serve as a tool to harness untapped entrepreneurial potential.

“I realized we could dedicate an initiative to the continent by which we would train young people – especially women – on how they can develop services through these smart devices,” Cheaib says. “They will be able to create their own jobs and empower themselves rather than waiting for someone to help them.”

Josie Fomé “It was really challenging and it helped me grow in multiple ways by learning how to listen and understand, not just respond. I learned how to take a step back because this isn’t my space and this isn’t my culture,” says Josie Fomé.

Working alongside CEED founder Uwihanganye, in 2018 Cheaib launched the Concordia Africa Initiative (CAI) with the goal of building transformative relationships with African communities and institutions by directing the university’s strengths toward key areas affectng socioeconomic development.

“We’re always looking for new places for Concordia to be connected. We want to be connected at a different level with Africa in a way that is meaningful both for people there as well as for Concordia,” says Cheaib.

At a time of Concordia’s growth in influence within global engagements, CAI presents an opportunity to bring more African insights to the university’s teaching and learning, and more of Concordia’s research and outreach to Africa.

“While CEED is a student-led, student- owned organization that has done a lot of good work, CAI brings the opportunity for Concordia to engage more with Africa on an institutional level and galvanize relationships with governments and other big institutions,” says Uwihanganye. “The whole world is interested in what’s happening in Africa. Investors should be bold.”

CAI is in the early stages of developing boot camps for entrepreneurs in collaboration with startup incubators in four countries: Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Ethiopia. This work would be in partnership with the Concordia-based District 3 Innovation Center, Montreal’s leading innovation hub for empowering innovators, entrepreneurs, and academics to create meaningful impact.

“The idea would be to use the tools we have here and train innovative entrepreneurs in Africa,” Cheaib says. From there, Cheaib says the most promising group would attend events such as the International Economic Forum of the Americas Conference of Montreal, where they could pitch matured ideas to high-profile funders such as finance ministers from different countries, NGO directors and business leaders.

“It’s not that we’re bringing them to Montreal and developing the ideas here, it’s that they will be developed locally in their countries,” he says.

So far, Cheaib has been meeting with leaders in partner countries, which he hopes will soon result in collaboration with government, NGOs and businesses.

At last year’s Conference of Montreal, CAI hosted a panel about women in business in Africa, which was introduced by Concordia President Alan Shepard, and featured panellists from Rwanda’s Development Board, the First Bank of Nigeria and the African Union.

“We’re hitting on something that is very much needed in Africa and we’re happy to be contributing to that,” he says. “Concordia has always been proud to be connected with the community, and in this case it’s about being connected with the global community.”

For Cheaib, CAI is indicative of Concordia’s unique identity of being a strong academic institute that also prioritizes its role as a community leader.


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